Other Cowboy Stars – Randolph Scott – “Wagon Wheels”

September 5, 2010

This 1934 film is a remake of the 1931 “Fighting Caravans”; both Paramount films are adaptations of the same Zane Grey novel.  Randolph Scott replaces Gary Cooper in this decidedly cheaper film which recycles all the wagon train footage from the first.

It seems odd that a studio would remake a film so quickly after its original release.  Even odder that it would be a C-Movie version of a B-Movie.  I would guess that more than a third of the 60 minutes of this film are filled by footage from the first film.

Here’s why.  Paramount was making B-titles at this time using footage from silent films (and sometimes hiring a few of the same character actors from the original films.)  Randolph Scott was in a number of these.  The Zane Grey titles were wildly successful, so why not do the same bit with a sound film from three years before.

My favorite sequence from this film is a strangely motivated saloon brawl.  It’s a unique set-up.  Scout Randolph Scott learns that the bad guy is preparing an ambush of the wagon train, and they have got to leave town right away.  Unfortunately, all the men are drinking.  Scott and his boys have to drag their drunk asses out of the saloon and beat them into submission to do so.  The neat coda to this sequence is all the men passed out in the jostling wagons while the womenfolk drive pell-mell towards freedom.

This is a site dedicated to the films of Charles Starrett, so please allow me to note the similarities and differences of this Paramount B-oater with the Columbia films that feature Charles Starrett around this time.

Starrett’s films never had a source material like a popular novel; they were inventions of the studio.  Starrett’s films are also much more static that this film — in general, they are set in one town and the surrounding area, not along a 1,000 mile trek across the country.  Similiarly, the narrative in a Starrett film is fairly contained to a single central conflict.  “Wagon Wheels” takes us on a narrative journey with many conflicts arising, deepening and being resolved along the way.

The bad guy in “Wagon Wheels” is a trader with Injun blood who is posing as a settler to sabotage the wagon train.  Why?  Settlers will ruin the fur trade in Oregon.  He is acting as part of some vaguely imagined Fur Traders Consortium.  This sort of confused nonsense fits the Columbia mold for villainy perfectly.

“Wagon Wheels” features no overt comic character like Smiley or Pat Brady.  The comedy here is rather sweet, and arises from the courtship between a grizzled old-timer and a bookworm spinster from Indiana.

Musically, there are three numbers, all campfire songs.  These are not sung by an established group like The Sons of the Pioneeers, nor are the singers characters in the film — these are some nondescript cowhands and, for one tune, a female settler with a surprisingly operatic voice.

In 1934, Randolph Scott was in a similar place in his career as Starrett — both are just graduating from character roles in studio films to leads in low-budget Westerns.  In fact, they each had a small part in the 1932 Richard Arlen vehicle “Sky Bride.” He is also physically similar to Starrett — ramrod erect back, tall, lean, long handsome face and strong jaw.  Scott favors tan colors while Charles is a black and white sort of cowboy.  They favor similar fighting stances, though Scott relies more on the wide-swinging roundhouse.

Like Starrett, Scott was a child of wealth, born to an old Virginia family.  He rode horses as a child and attended private schools.  He also shared Starrett’s athleticism, excelling in football, baseball and swimming.

Does anyone know if Randolph Scott ever played a character with a secret identity?  I mean, other than in real life.  (Forgive my snark!)  ((Please note that this post has been remarkably snark-free.  I’m learning, people.))

Scott has a great fresh presence in this film but I prefer the older craggier version from his films with Budd Boetticher like “The Tall T.”

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